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Report: Trump's budget eliminates Sea Grant

A Minnesota Sea Grant College Program staffer holds a handful of Zebra Mussels, found in Superior Bay and the St. Louis river. Reports indicate the Sea Grant program could lose 100 percent of its funding due to Trump administration budget cuts. (file / News Tribune)

The Trump administration appears ready to gut parts of the federal budget aimed at protecting waterways, conducting research and educating the public on environmental issues — including entirely eliminating funding for the Sea Grant program across the U.S.

The Sea Grant cut was unveiled Saturday by a Washington Post story that quotes an unnamed source who provided an Office of Management and Budget document.

If accurate, the elimination of Sea Grant's $76 million annual budget would be part of huge cuts in funding for research and outreach arms of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the U.S. Commerce Department.

The cuts target programs that deal with conservation, restoration, climate change and other environmental issues, especially research and public education.

The Commerce Department faces an overall 18 percent budget cut. But the pain wouldn't be evenly spread, the report notes. The National Weather Service, another branch of NOAA, would face a 5 percent budget cut while all Sea Grant funding would be cut. NOAA's Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would face a 26 percent cut and its satellite research division, which is extensively used to document climate change, faces a 22 percent budget cut.

The administration has promised to release its official budget proposal next week. The cuts aren't a done deal because the president's budget must go through Congress which will likely make changes as each agency budget is examined.

Sea Grant is a federally funded program on 33 university campuses across the nation but includes a combined 300 institutions and 3,000 scientists. The effort started in 1966, and the network conducts education, training and extension projects geared toward the conservation and practical use of the coasts, the Great Lakes and other marine areas.

Nationally, NOAA reported earlier this month that Sea Grant helped develop or sustain 2,906 businesses in 2016.

In the Northland, Minnesota Sea Grant has been active in invasive-species research, education and prevention. The Minnesota Sea Grant office has about 20 staff and is based at the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. It gets about $1 million in federal money with another $300,000 in state money.

But because the state money is contingent on federal funding, "the federal funding drives the program," said John Downing, director of Minnesota Sea Grant. Losing the Sea Grant program would be a huge blow for efforts to protect Lake Superior, he noted.

"Lake Superior is 10 percent of the world's surface fresh water ... and water is now the most important strategic resource on the planet," Downing said.

It's estimated that Minnesota Sea Grant provides about a $10 million economic benefit to the state, or nearly 10 times the federal investment. That includes helping the tourism-based recreational fishing, commercial fishing and maritime transportation industries as well as local communities and small businesses.

The program also works on human health and safety issues, such as research and education on rip currents, the deadly Great Lakes surges that can pull unsuspecting swimmers to their death.

The program also helped research the cause and cure for the Duluth harbor's underwater corrosion problem, a huge issue and expense for maritime industry in the Twin Ports.

"We help to sustain business and communities,'' Downing said. "This isn't ivory tower stuff."

It appears the proposed cuts for NOAA also would eliminate the National Estuarine Research Program, including the Superior-based Lake Superior National Estuary Reserve that offers education and research on the St. Louis River estuary.

Great Lakes restoration axed?

The news about Sea Grant funding comes just days after reports that the new administration wants to nearly eliminate funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The initiative, which has been funded at about $300 million annually through fiscal 2017, would be cut to just $10 million for 2018 under the proposed EPA budget obtained by media outlets last week.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars across the region to help restore fish and wildlife habitat, remove toxic sediments, stem the tide of invasive species and other projects to improve fishing, swimming and other uses of the lakes. That included several projects in the Duluth-Superior Harbor, such as the cleanup of Radio Tower Bay and the proposed capping of toxic sediments in Minnesota Slip.

The program, which requires matching state or nonprofit money to land federal grants, has seen strong support from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Also last week the Trump administration ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop work on a proposed Asian carp barrier near Chicago. It's unclear if or when that project, which is aimed at keeping the invasive carp out of the Great Lakes, will be allowed to proceed.